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Thoughts on Constructing A Library

Thoughts on Constructing A Library

I am going to jot a few notes on the subject of library (as in, personal book collection, not edifice) construction that I’ve been considering lately.

When reading stories of intellectual and political figures of the past, such as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, I realized that possessing a substantial library of works of interest and fame was part of standard operating procedure for literate men of the past. When I say substantial, I am talking about private collections numbering ten to twenty-thousand individual hardbound volumes, or when traveling, taking one or two trunkloads of books with the traveler to aid in research and study.

It’s a pretty different commitment to book warehousing and travel from having a few shelves of things you’ve read, or grabbing a couple books and stuffing them into your suitcase for an upcoming flight. Even in the age of Kindle, it’s akin to having a multi-gigabyte device dedicated solely to storing your library.

I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve read so far in my life, and it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to include childhood picture books in the same measure as thousand page social philosophy treatises. But even if you excluded everything I read before age 19 or 20, which is probably the point in my life where I got “serious” about reading and was mostly reading non-fiction for information and analysis rather than fiction to pass the time or have my imagination stimulated (although, like many teenagers, I did manage to consume Atlas Shrugged during this “non-serious” period), I would still feel comfortable saying the number is “thousands”, especially if you include partially read titles. Probably less than five thousand, but definitely more than one thousand.

I don’t have most of those titles in my possession. Over the last seven or eight years, I consumed many works (especially about business, investing or economics) digitally, and over the last two years I have become an active “purger”, selling, donating or simply tossing books I didn’t bother to read, didn’t bother to finish or didn’t think I’d get any additional value out of in owning them. Most of what is on my shelf at home right this moment are either unread-waiting-to-be-read, or read-and-coming-back-to-them titles. I guess you’d call the latter “reference” titles, but I actually have few reference titles and I mean more of the idea of doing a full-reread to see how my understanding and appreciation of what I previously deemed a worthy title has changed as I’ve changed.

I wonder if purging is a good approach for a few reasons. One is that I have a child now, and hope to have more. I like to think I’ve spent a lot of time reading and sorting knowledge contained in books and I’ve wasted my time on many in order to find the few quality gems, the essential titles in some field that can quickly give one a nuanced understanding of the major and minor issues alike in some discipline. This time I’ve invested is a sunk cost, and being able to hand over a ready-culled library of the “classics” and “greatest hits” to my children and grandchildren seems like part of the social capital of our family.

A problem I have with this logic is that I found a lot of these books by exploring specific questions I had prior to reading them. I arrived at the good stuff through a meaningful epistemological journey that probably would not be as valuable or even as coherent as it was if I had leapt straight from my starting inquiry to the most elucidated truth in the best book. I had to fight for the knowledge I came by and do my own hard thinking and analyzing as I went. Handing someone a ready-constructed library of “essential knowledge” lacks context and it also lacks respect for their own curiosity.

Similarly, as the RIE-philosophy of infant care-giving reminds us (I think derived from Montessori), when you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance to discover it himself. There’s something cognitively valuable in the act of discovery that inheriting a library might obviate.

On the other hand, “on the shoulder of giants”… so perhaps my issue will see farther than me if they start not at the starting line, as I did, but far beyond the finish line in another race entirely.

Another problem with purging is that we are quickly losing a sense of literary history and context with the rise of Google and Amazon. With Google, we convince ourselves that anything worth knowing can be easily searched for, and that it isn’t important to understand the source or genesis over time of certain ideas, only what the latest conclusions are. With Amazon, we come to understand the literary universe as being composed of recently published, hot-selling titles (usually rehashes of old ideas, reformulated for the latest audience fad or interest) and a few older works deemed “classics” because they don’t manage to offend anyone. There are literally hundreds of thousands of titles people used to read, adore and consider categorical in their respective field that aren’t in print and that are essentially invisible to modern readers unless you know what to look for. There are also thousands of titles that reflect the losing side in a historical conflict, of ideas or arms or otherwise, that are not considered “truthful” simply because that side lost. Those are perspectives worth thinking about still if one wants to hone one’s critical mind and maintain a level of scientific objectivity in one’s thinking.

So I worry that some of the great stuff I’ve come across, my children will simply not see if I don’t keep it in my library for them. Especially if they are about ideas I think are important and honest, but which end up “losing the battle” during our lifetime and become non-PC. Down the memory hole!

Storing all these books has an economic cost. There is also search costs in looking through them when seeking a title out if they’re too numerous. And while I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on books over the years, I’ve mostly acquired paperbacks. I wonder if these are durable and can stand the test of time.

I am currently not resolved on the question of “To construct a library for myself and my posterity, or not?” One thing I do know, is that there is something wrong with a home (or office!) that contains no books, or that contains only books selected by others and not by oneself, or received for promotional reasons alone. It would be a major mistake to raise children in a place where books weren’t an ever-present part of their surroundings, even if the total quantity and methodology of selection behind the “library” remains in a negotiated state.

A Quick Thought On SEO

A Quick Thought On SEO

I think search engine optimization of websites and web content (ie, site copy, the actual words you write on a website or blog) is ruining the web. Allow me to explain.

SEO requires a site author to adopt a set of practices in sourcing, writing and formatting content that makes that content more easily crawled by a search bot, thus leading to improved search relevancy and higher traffic. The merit of the approach is that more people interested in what your site is about are able to find it. In economics this is called lowering transaction costs, and it leads to gains through efficiency. The entire field of marketing and advertising deals with search efficiency in a theoretical sense– ensuring the maximum number of potential consumers of a product or service are aware of its existence, capable of affording it and able to make use of it.

SEO gimmicks change all the time. This is because people selling SEO services are constantly studying new search engine rules and then coming up with strategies for gaming the intent of the rule to exploit it. As a result, search engine rules change and SEO changes occur in lock step. But some aspects of SEO seem rather hardcoded, due to the nature of non-human agents (search bots) being the driving mechanism of web crawling.

Three major hard structures seem to be present in SEO recommendations no matter the rules. One is the recommendation to pepper one’s site with relevant “keywords” that help a bot quickly catalog a site’s content as part of this or that interest set. Another is to write content with clear subheadings that indicate the logical structure of the content and again provide a kind of mini-keyword set to what is on the page. The final recommendation is to write really short paragraphs, using short sentences and simple words. The idea here is this is “readable”, especially on mobile devices and especially by search bots who might find long arguments and linguistic nuance difficult to parse.

All of these things suck and make for shitty human-read websites.

The worst offenders of keywords write jumbled, nonsensical content strewn with locations, service names, emphatic descriptors and other errata that is literally incomprehensible to a human reader and is only good for a bot. But it ends up on the page, visible to humans, resulting in a confusing mess. The more savvy offenders try to make the keywords seem contextual by purposefully writing the content in such a way that keywords replace the word that might make naturally come to mind in a given place. This content reads like someone is being paid to name-drop or use particular words, that is, it’s jarring.

The use of subheadings breaks up the flow of an essay, article or argument. It rewards the proverbial reader with ADD, who can’t be bothered to follow a train of thought for more than 15 seconds. It demeans the audience by suggesting they need the structure of the message highlighted and flagged lest they lose their way trying to find their own footing. It violates the law of simplicity, adding things that aren’t necessary when so much of good writing comes from taking more and more away.

The blasphemy of the final SEO recommendation should be readily apparent. Read any classical treatise, any philosophical work, anything at all written by a serious thinker, especially long ago. See if you can find many paragraphs shorter than half a page. See if you can find many chapters that don’t contain words you need to look up in a dictionary. In other words, see if you can find any kind of writing that doesn’t require the reader to work hard to get the reward of understanding from the author, an individual who has likely striven even more mightily in his life to be in such a position as to bequeath his knowledge in a text. Now, ask yourself, what kind of quality can we expect from writing whose primary virtues are to be contained in short paragraphs, in shorter sentences and in words a barely educated 10 year old finds himself conversant?

So let it be known, here at A House Rises, we’ll be taking a stand against this SEO nonsense. We will optimize nothing but the power of our ideas and the gloriousness of the writing we use to wield them. We will write for people, not algorithms, and rely on common word of mouth and the virus of impulse to spread our content to the right people at the right time. We’ll write things we are proud of, about things we actually care about, with an authenticity fitting to us and our purpose in sharing our ideas. To hell with the rest of it!

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.

That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.

Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.

The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!

There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.

Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.

 

The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?

Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.

Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.

One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.

In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.

Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.

 

When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.

That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!

Why Do We Write This Blog?

Why Do We Write This Blog?

A few months ago a friend asked me why we write this blog. They wanted to know if we thought we were an expert or an authority on the subjects we talk about, and thus felt it appropriate to share our views. It’s a good question that I was thinking more about and had been meaning to turn into a blog post in reply. So, here’s why we write this blog.

Not experts or authorities, but popularizers

While our level of study and experience with the primary subject matter of this blog varies from quite intensive to novice, we don’t see ourselves as experts and don’t believe we have any special authority on the subject. We don’t write about things we’re interested in to try to provide an “official” analysis or to convey the idea that we ought to be listened to just because we know what we know. Instead, our goal is only to popularize the ideas that interest us and that we consider important.

We popularize for three reasons. One, it improves our lives if more people are interested in the things we are interested in. Two, we find talking about the things we’re interested in to be entertaining and thus enjoyable in and of itself. And finally, we think we’re good at popularizing.

In our experience, we are typically the “gateway drug” of various ideas in our friend network. In other words, we are the first point of contact for many of our friends, on many subjects, to first learn of the existence of a particular idea. That isn’t because we’re super smart, or super knowledgeable, or they are the opposite– it’s simply because we happen to have eclectic tastes that are often orthogonal to our friends own cultivated interests. And because we’re passionate about what we believe in and find ourselves talking about such things quite frequently, there are many opportunities for our friends and other people we know to get exposed to our ideas.

We haven’t had an original idea, ever, though we’ve synthesized a few good notions by mashing unrelated concepts together. We’re not trying to create a scientific revolution or move humanity forward with an invention. We’re content to merely spread what we think are good ideas to other people. More importantly, we think there are common logical threads woven through the core principles of our most important ideals such that there is a coherence to being interested in all of them simultaneously. We’re interested in showing more people how subjects seemingly as diverse as economics, politics, philosophy, nutrition, corporate governance, parenting and family formation can all be linked together by common ideas.

Part of our family’s inheritance

If we produce a premium product on this blog in terms of a collection of ideas, experiences and opinions which together are valuable, we can do a lot of “work” in terms of human capital for our family, including our children. We can pass this resource on to them not only in their present intellectual endeavors, but to future generations who may come to know us only by the written record we’ve left behind. This blog will serve as part of the treasure of our family and we hope it will provide compound interest all its own!

A research emporium

We read a lot. We ask a lot of questions. We spend a lot of time thinking about the things we become interested in. And we have limited memory with which to serve all of these activities and thoughts. Our blog is an extension of our accumulated memory on various subjects. What’s more, it’s searchable with an algorithm, and it is open to the public. We enjoy contributing to the collective intelligence of humanity in this small way, particularly our own! We are always amazed to look back on something we’ve written about in the past and go, “Oh, so that’s what we think about that subject!” And it makes it easier to answer people’s questions or have a deeper discussion when we can reference our previous thinking to others by linking them to a blog post.

A tool to aid in concrete thinking

The practice of writing one’s thoughts down, particularly for public consumption, focuses the mind. It requires one be more thoughtful about what is essential to the idea. It demands one hone one’s rhetorical blade. It just produces better thinking over all to go through an idea enough to try to explain it to others. Our ideas always get better when we try to write about them. Better thinking means better doing.

And a tool to aid our writing

Of course, practicing writing one’s thoughts also means practicing one’s writing. We think we make improvements in that area by writing this blog as well.

It’s fun!

We think we’re good writers. And we like our own ideas. And we enjoy humoring ourselves with our own thinking. Even if no one else comes by to look at what we’re doing or gaze in awe at our commanding knowledge on certain subjects, we’ll be entertained by looking back on what we wrote.

Looking Back On The Records Of My Life

Looking Back On The Records Of My Life

I’m going through my personal document archive right now. I have data stretching back to 2007, though most of it clusters around 2009+ which when I started getting “serious” about hoarding data, documents and other bits of intellectual flair about myself. What started off as a simple Spring Cleaning-type exercise in tidying up my digital filing system is instead turning into a philosophical journey to a land of the past self and it’s inviting a lot of questions and thoughts I wasn’t expecting to have, such as…

I’ve got A LOT of information I collected at various times I was attempting to self-educate on topics of interest. For example, I have enough reading material to teach and supply a graduate level course on investing and financial analysis, business management and strategy and basic accounting and corporate finance. I also have collected digital copies of nearly every book and article I’ve read on economics and related sociology and historical topics. It’s essentially a download of my brain on these topics and, given that I feel comfortable with my level of knowledge in these areas, I’ve done a lot of the hard work in gathering up a comprehensive curriculum here which might be of use to a future learner, such as my child.

But will my child want to study these things? Will my Little Lion need to do the kind of painstaking scouring of primary materials, in volume, that I did? Or will my Little Lion learn a lot of the fundamentals by a kind of osmosis being around me, talking about this stuff with me, such that it won’t really be much use to have the archive for personal perusal?

Now that I am done with these materials, they have little value to me personally. It’s nice to imagine I’d dig in here and there for reference or to double-check something, but I haven’t touched this stuff since 2012 when I began collecting it. That’s 5 years! I knew I had it all this time, but I never went looking for it. What are the chances I will look back on it another 5 years from now? Or 20?

I try to live a simple life. I’m not a minimalist in practice, but the people around me would accuse me of such. I am tempted to just delete this stuff wholesale.

When I think about transmitting my book learning to my kin, and I think about the principles of selectivity and simplicity, there are few titles I would like to hand down and say “Read this if you want to be part of the family/have success in your life/grow your mind.” A book like Human Action comes to mind. That’s as close to Required Reading on each of those points as anything I can think of. But a PDF copy of “Investment Topic X”? Or “Economic Subject Y”? I don’t think it is essential to have that all lined up for the next in line.

The modern trend of Big Data promises amazing returns to collecting and analyzing comprehensive data about people’s interests, behaviors, etc. Mostly, it is a false promise in my experience and I think it’s a false promise in looking through my archive as well. Here’s some notes I took in 2010 on some subject. Here is a spreadsheet I built for something in 2011. Here is some list of experiences I wanted to have, or goals I was chasing after. It is the story of my life, the breadcrumbs along the path to whatever my final purpose and meaning is. (It’s amazing how you seem to get an idea in your head early on in your life and just iterate it over and over. I wonder where those ideas come from and why we get fascinated with them?) But what of it? Can’t rehash that part of my life and choose differently, and I am where I am, and it doesn’t offer much predictive value for where I am going unless it is to continue on the path I am on, but then it is inevitable so, again, what of it?

I think about this with my email archiving as well. I have a lot of emails stored up over the year. Conversations on all kinds of topics. Lengthy diatribes about what I think and why. A veritable mind map on a plethora of issues. It’s fun to be able to look back on it from time to time. But really, it is of more value to Google in selling my (anonymized?) data to advertisers than it will ever be to me in providing some kind of meaningful insight or prediction about myself. Mostly it is good for looking up old logins, loyalty program info, or upcoming event or itinerary data. After that, it is the past, and it doesn’t matter.

I have all these photos, too. Ever since I had a web-connected phone, they just started accumulating. A snap here, a photo there. How many have I looked back on even a week or two after I took it? The significance fades, even if the memory is still there. One day I could share with a friend who wants to know about a place I’ve been or an experience I’ve had, or with my Little Lion, to illustrate what life was like before I was a parent. Why? Why does this matter? It is gone. It can’t be gotten back to. What can it tell us? Little, I think.

So, a new habit to inculcate: create a robust, dynamic filing structure for recalling and accessing current data and records of interest, and then have the discipline to purge when these files go “inactive” in my consciousness.

Why I Am Not Doing My Annual Review/Planning Session This Year

Why I Am Not Doing My Annual Review/Planning Session This Year

Although I have never been a resolution-maker (phony!), I have long-been an annual planner, and since 2014 my efforts have taken an explicitly formal yet evolving shape. Depending on my other priorities and distractions, I typically begin reflecting on my year-past in late December and finish up writing out some thoughts and expectations for the year-coming by mid-January; I then set a calendar reminder to circle back mid-year in June to see how I am doing and recalibrate if necessary. In this way, I have generally made steady progress on a number of annual and life goals over the last three years.

The heart of the process involves the following steps:

  1. Flick through my calendar for the year-past and review major activities logged therein
  2. Sit in quiet and dig into memories of significant experiences and other events not captured on the calendar
  3. Write out an essay-form reflection on these accomplishments and the thoughts and emotions they evoke
  4. Lay out a new set of goals or achievements to be accomplished in the coming year as a list
  5. Write a brief summary of the anticipated path to achieving these goals via specific behaviors, processes and routines in the coming year

To this I added last year the “mind-mapping” practice suggested by a friend, wherein one gets out a blank sheet of paper, writes some words for major categories of life activities (I used Relationships, Career, Wealth, Mind/Body (Health) and Travel/Lifestyle) which are encircled and then additional related words are “bubbled” out from each category in a randomized chain of thought. It creates a neat visual representation of your ideas, especially if you use size to emphasize weight of concern, or can find ways to draw linkages between related ideas on disparate categories. It’s also a lot quicker to scan for meaning than an essay. I found combining this practice with my essay writing practice gave me a more complete picture of my yearly accomplishments.

I found listing out what I had done to be therapeutic. One thing I struggle with is giving myself credit for what I accomplish. I always want more and want to do more, and so it’s easy for me to convince myself I haven’t done enough, even when I have done everything on an arbitrary list! Writing it all down creates a volume of evidence that is hard to ignore: all the trips, all the interactions with friends and family, all the meals planned, the workouts at the gym, the money saved and invested, the skills developed, etc. It’s harder to look at that list and conclude “I didn’t get anything done last year!”

Another interesting aspect of this practice is I have a record I can look back on and see:

  • how long did it take me to accomplish a particular goal?
  • did I remain persistent if I didn’t get it done when I first wanted to?
  • did I decide to give up on a goal and if so, why? (did I realize it wasn’t important?)
  • what themes exist that are consistent across time with regards to goals I have set?
  • how am I “different” or “the same” in what I am trying to accomplish from year to year?

There are some things I have failed to achieve for several years now but which I still desire. There are other things I thought I wanted but decided weren’t important or worth prioritizing at some point along and consciously let them go in order to simplify my life. And there are some things I have been so stupendously efficient with that I’ve made progress each year on another “tier” of related achievements such that I am much farther along in the space of a few years than I would’ve thought when setting out on my first related activity some years ago.

Another reflection and motivation process I considered doing this year was suggested by another friend. Basically, I was to write myself a letter, dated January 1, 2018, which outlined all the different goals I had achieved throughout 2017 with explanations of the processes or routines I used to achieve them. For example, I accomplished X by spending Y minutes every week on Z. The idea is that one can not only consciously envision these tasks as already completed (so you get the sense they can be done) but you have also given yourself the how-to manual you can use to achieve them. It’s like having a crystal ball you didn’t realize you programmed. I really liked this idea and was prepared to implement it.

Somewhere along the line between early December, when I first started outlining my annual review process, and today, nearly at the end of the first month of 2017, I seem to have completely lost my motivation to get any of this done and so I have essentially given up on it!

I have a lot of friends who excel at personal organization, motivation and self-development. Most of these friends now have children of their own, and their reports have been consistent: children will dramatically change your personal productivity. I have to admit I discounted these reports quite a bit. I thought I was even better organized, even more productive, so it wouldn’t affect me, or at least as much or in the ways it affected them.

Simply put, I was wrong. Being extra sleep-deprived has sapped my drive. It’s required me to take more down-time where I do nothing too intense so I can mentally, emotionally and physically recover. Being on-call for my Little Lion has made it harder to focus on activities which require dedicated focus to make progress. In fact, it’s often impossible to even imagine starting such activities lest I get immediately interrupted and feel frustrated in the process. And now and for the foreseeable future, pitching in on tasks the Wolf could normally handle by herself means I divert a significant fraction of “me” time each week toward things other than me. So I am not superman, and my experience here has been quite similar to my friends just as they predicted or said to expect.

But having my Little Lion has also been incredibly motivating in the sense that it’s given me a new, concrete purpose to pursue various activities, from the minute daily upkeep stuff to the big life-planning stuff. And it’s definitely made me more resilient and less prone to complaining or feeling bad for myself; where I couldn’t always see it before, it is now abundantly obvious to me that “no one is coming to the rescue”, and if I don’t do what I have to do, it doesn’t get done and he, the Wolf and myself all suffer for it.

So I don’t think that is what is going on here, though it makes for a convenient and wildly coincidental excuse!

I am still thinking about this so I can’t say anything for sure, but I will take a stab at what I think is going on. I think what’s going on is that I have built a process here that is almost an end unto itself in terms of the energy and investment required to make use of it. It takes too long. It requires too much thought. It encompasses too much potential behavior and activity in the future. It seems to leave little room for spontaneity. It takes away from too much of the “living of life” I’d like to be doing right this very moment. It is, in a word, overwhelming.

This will seem like a tangent but here goes: recently the same friend who was proposing the letter-writing exercise (which is, ironically, probably a dramatic step towards simplifying this process if I did JUST that, rather than adding it to my existing process…) was talking about how he heard Tim Ferriss on one of his podcasts make some remark about how he has kept a nutrition and workout log for himself every single day of his life since he was 16 (or something, I don’t remember… it was a long amount of time). Essentially, Ferriss could pick any day since he was 16 (or whenever!) and tell you exactly what he ate and what workout he did and what weight he managed to lift, if you asked. My friend thought this was an incredible example of discipline, organization and data-gathering.

And truly, it is. But what of it? How is this valuable? What on Earth could Ferriss do with this data besides impress someone like my friend, or scratch some strange “autistic” itch of his with regards to data-fying his own life? How much healthier, more fit, etc., is he than the average health nut or fitness buff because of this practice?

There is a difference between exhaustive and exhausting. I would say this is exhausting. I would say my annual review process has become exhausting. So I can look back at how my goals have changed since 2014. Why besides personal vanity do I think this is valuable? “Oh look at who I was and what I am now!” Some self-help gurus say you should stop comparing yourself to others and only compare yourself to yourself. “Transcend yourself.” If you want to compete, compete against your personal best.

No matter how many times you transcend yourself, you’re still you. You’re still here. Whichever version of yourself you are this very moment, that’s the one you’ve got to work with. You got a leg up on You-Of-A-Year-Ago. Congratulations. One should HOPE one has a leg-up on someone who is a full year behind! What have you done for yourself lately?

I’ve been fighting this battle for a few years now, mostly with myself, and on a number of fronts, this battle of telling myself I should be doing certain things to accomplish certain goals. I tell myself I want to be a “highly productive person”, and I look around and imagine that all HPP have goals, do annual planning routines, etc. Worked fairly well for me up to this point doing it the way I had done it, and I can see people who seem to accomplish even more than I, and I can imagine they’re even more intense about it. So I tell myself to do a little bit more, push a little harder, be a little more consistent. But each effort in that direction seems to be pushing up against my Diminishing Marginal Return boundary, because I am becoming less and less a HPP and more and more a Person-Striving-To-Be-A-HPP in the process.

I’ve been doing this with writing for the last ten years, blogging in particular. I used to write/blog A LOT when I was younger. I felt like I had a lot to say. I really enjoyed hearing myself think. I’d go back and re-read my own material and get a chuckle. Oh, it was good! Then, something happened. I realized a lot of what I was saying had been said before. I realized I wasn’t a professional writer so I was mostly writing for my own amusement. I realized, I had a lot of other stuff I wanted to do besides write my thoughts down somewhere! Writing and blogging slowly became not something I did because I felt motivated and passionate about my writing subject, but a habit I stuck to because I convinced myself it was some integral part of my identity.

My annual planning has taken a similar turn. It is mostly something I am keeping up with to convince myself I am that HPP I think I want to be and can become if only I do things like this. It is not so easy to sit down and do it. It isn’t coming naturally to me. Yes, I am tired right now, but no, I still get a lot of other stuff done despite that, because I want to do those things.

Instead of doing my annual planning process this year, I have decided to write about why I am not doing it. I felt like I needed to give myself permission to let it go, and this is how I chose to do that.

Notes About The First Ten Days Of Your Life (#infancy, #life)

Notes About The First Ten Days Of Your Life (#infancy, #life)

To my Little Lion,

I wanted to share some observations about the condition of your world at the time of and shortly after your birth, just ten days ago. It may interest you to look back on this some day, and it will be of benefit to me and your mother to remind ourselves of our good fortune, and yours.

You were born during the Winter Solstice last year (it’s New Year’s Day today, so I can already say “last year”, as if you’ve been around so long… we’re already shocked when we realize you have not been around even a month) and what’s more, you were born during a rain storm, the rarest of rare weather conditions where we currently live. Your mother and I are not superstitious people and we don’t believe there is any cosmic agency behind the concurrence of these events, I just find them remarkable because of their natural beauty, much like the nearly perfect weather conditions this morning when I finally took our dog for a walk– cool, breezy, clear, sunny, good visibility all the way off the coast to the island, fresh smelling air after another night’s rainfall.

You were born at home, as planned. The Wolf and I planned for months for that moment, as you were slowly growing inside of her belly, because we thought it gave the most advantages to you and to us. All of our friends who have had children describe the happiest part of the birth of their children as the moment they were released from the hospital and able to come home. We figured, why not just start at home and skip a few steps? We valued the privacy of it, as well. Your mother could labor anywhere she felt comfortable doing so, in an environment she knew well, with only your father and the three birth attendants (the midwife, the midwife-in-training and the doula to comfort your mother) nearby. We looked at your birth as a natural, healthy process and we were concerned that bringing you into the world in a hospital would encourage everyone around you to try to notice what might be wrong with you and your health, rather than what is right. It’s not that we’re anti-hospitals, and we appreciate that we live nearby one in case we needed extra help in bringing you into the world, we just try to live our lives simply and it seemed like we could do without. Your mother took great care to eat well, exercise, think happy thoughts, read a lot about you and how you were growing and how you’d be when you arrived, and so it seemed with such low risks to keep it that way by having you at home.

What did not go as planned was the specific day you decided to arrive! We were expecting you a few weeks from the day you were born. The Wolf and I were methodically going through our preparation checklists each day and week as your expected due date got closer. The day you were born, I was supposed to run to the market and start stocking up on supplies to feed your mother and the birth team. I didn’t get there in time! Your mother started laboring early in the morning and had pushed you out (without any drugs or medical intervention) by the afternoon! We didn’t even get the birth tub here in time for your water birth, she had you right on the bed you sleep in with us at night. The midwife was very kind and let me “catch” you as you came out. It was an exhilarating experience to grab your wet, slippery, bony, hot little body for the first time and lift you up and place you on your mother’s chest. We didn’t know what you’d be — a little boy or a little girl, though your mother says she secretly suspected you were a boy, and every passerby on our daily walks thought for sure you were a boy from the way your mother was carrying you, which is more superstition — but we were excited that you were what you were, if that makes any sense!

The birth team was so great with your mother. The doula arrived first and comforted your mother. Even though you couldn’t LEGALLY be delivered in our own bath tub (well, your bath tub, in your room), which I will tell you more about such silliness when you’re older, your mother labored in there with the doula while we waited for the midwife and her assistant to arrive. Everyone encouraged your mother and gave her the confidence and support she needed to bring you out, even though your father didn’t have any food or drink for anyone!

Your Grandma and Grandpa Lion came over to visit that first night and brought your mother and I some much needed food. They were so excited to see you! Your Grandma Wolf came a few days later, she lives a few thousand miles away and had to quickly change her plane tickets to be able to see you. She’s with us now and will be for the next few weeks. She is a big help for your mother and father, helping with sweeping, cleaning up dishes (your father is rediscovering his penchant for cooking these past few weeks), caring for your dog, doing laundry and even spending time with you which is really her greatest reward. She does all the hard work without complaint, with a smile on her face, getting to spend time with you for even a moment seems to make it all worthwhile to her. Even when you poop and pee on her, the chair, the floor and your dog during your “air time”. (Oh, and your Grandma Wolf is super obsessed with you staying warm, she is always chiding me about it.)

Your Auntie Lionesses came by and pitched in, too. They helped change bed sheets, sweep floors and they gave your mother and father an awesome early Christmas gift– six nights of meals that we packaged and put in the freezer to make more time available for me and your mother to spend with you. You’ve had a few visitors already, mostly your mother’s friends and some of Grandma and Grandpa Lion’s friends. They’ve bought food, gifts and good wishes. We didn’t have a name for you at first. Well, we did, but we hadn’t settled on it. So the first five days of your life created an obsessive mystery for many of the people who care about you. We “revealed” your name on Christmas Day while visiting at Grandma and Grandpa Lion’s house and everyone was overjoyed. Your Grandpa Wolf doesn’t get to meet you, but he gets to enjoy being part of your namesake, which we hope you will be able to appreciate some day.

As I said before, it is hard for your mother and I to believe you’ve only been with us for ten days now. All you know of the world is our bedroom, our living room, our kitchen, the view of the sky on the way to the local bakery and back, the ceiling of your mother’s car, and a few rooms of Grandma and Grandpa Lion’s house. The only people you know about are the few people who have come to see you so far, and most of them looked like funny blurs to you that you couldn’t focus on. You might imagine there are three animals in the whole world, your dog and your grandma and grandpa’s two dogs. We try to keep remembering that everything is new to you right now and everything will be new to you for years to come– you will need patience and your own space to learn and explore the vast diversity of the world and to make sense of it all.

We spend time holding you, but we also give you time on your back — on the bed, on the couch, not yet on the floor but eventually — to look around and move your body on your own. Your movements are jittery and random, but they have great meaning and importance to you. You are working on developing yourself, even when you’re moving around in your sleep, trying to become the person you will be. We don’t ever want to forget that, or try to hurry it, or expect anything of you but that. We resist as much as we can the temptation to “pattern-fit” your behavior right now, especially when people ask silly but well-intentioned questions like “How is he sleeping?”, “How is he eating?” etc. The answer is always, just as you are supposed to, whatever that is each day and night, it’s always changing because you’re always changing, getting a little older and a little bit further along your own plan each moment.

There’s so much more I could say, but this is what I want to focus on for now. Raising you is indeed a challenge, but it’s a challenge we chose and it’s a challenge we love (even aside from all the help we’ve gotten so far). We look forward to each day with you!

A Reflection on Reading (#books, #reading, #lifestyle)

A Reflection on Reading (#books, #reading, #lifestyle)

I used to love reading, but reading hasn’t been fun for me lately.

I’ve been a big reader since I was an adolescent. A non-embellished family lore story that gets mentioned with some frequency involves my father insisting that I stop wasting my time on mindless recreational activities (I was about eight in this story, so we’re not talking about drugs) and do something productive with my time. Trying to figure out what I could do differently I asked, “Like what?” Exasperated, he replied, “I don’t know, read a book!” “But I’ve read everything already.” “You’ve read every book in this house?” he asked, bemused. He began grabbing books off the shelf in my room at random and quizzing me, “What’s this one about? What about this one?” After doing this five or six times, he gave up, admitted maybe I was using my time as wisely as I could and maybe we didn’t have enough books, either, and agreed right then and there to buy me any book I wanted, any time I wanted, going forward. We started making a lot of trips to Barnes & Noble and Borders after that!

The story is not embellished but it might as well be. My father was too busy building our family business to prioritize reading much of anything that was not industry related. My mother had her hands full raising several small children and tending to the other household needs so she didn’t prioritize reading as much, either. Both my parents saw reading as important — one of those things you recognize the value in because you DON’T do it yourself, I suppose — and wanted their children, including me, to be readers. So I had a bookshelf in my room, and there were a few other titles strewn about here and there, but it wasn’t like we had some sophisticated reference library (we didn’t buy a set of encyclopedias until I was around thirteen, and by then the digital world of the internet had entered my life in a most distracting manner and I found searching for information there more fascinating than paging through a hardbound ‘pedia… who knows what would’ve happened if I had had access to that material when I was eight) and the most complicated story on my shelf at the time was probably a Boxcar Children novel or a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry.

The point is, I loved to read and if I found a book, I generally read it. As I got older, my interests in reading shifted. I spent a lot of time immersed in the fictional worlds of fantasy writing and sci-fi. I ended up owning and reading stacks of paperback novels that would be eight or nine feet high laid on top of one another. I also became interested in news magazines (though not newspapers, which I found cumbersome physically, dirty, and we never seemed to be subscribed to one). By my teenage years I was subscribed to TIME, Newsweek, National Review, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. As I entered high school I added The Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker to the list, as well as a few others. I continued reading mostly novels, essentially unaware of the world of biography, philosophy, social science and history more generally speaking. I read nothing of business or investing. I just didn’t know the stuff existed, though I wish I had because I can imagine myself enjoying reading it back then.

After going to college, I became more serious about reading. Part of this was because I found myself extremely frustrated in my classes with the material I was being taught and the lack of critical thinking I thought the classes entailed about the subject matter, concerns I’ve laid out in some detail in earlier posts. As a result, I took to a program of parallel self-study in various fields, such as economics. Again, at the time I was unaware that there was a phenomenon called “autodidactism”, which I had been doing a lot of my entire life but never with any discipline, but now I was discovering it and realizing just how powerful a dedicated program of reading and thinking could be for me in connecting the knowledge dots. I found a variety of printable media on sites like www.mises.org, entire economic treatises a thousand pages long or more, and started visiting Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) to print and spiral bind these works into more manageable mini-volumes. I’d stuff these things in my book bag and read them on my 30 minute subway commute to class and back, or more generally, in the back of the lecture I was supposed to be listening to instead. My grades suffered a bit (though I think that’s mostly because I found the official subject matter so disingenuous and so worthless that I’d often fall asleep in my apartment trying to study it) but my knowledge exploded. I was hooked on reading.

I’ve been a serious reader ever since. But being a serious reader is a lot different from being someone who loves reading. I’ve struggled with the two lately. Being a serious reader is hard work. It is exhausting. It is demanding of your time and energy and it leaves little room for other priorities. Done the right way, it entails a lot of ancillary obligations as well, in my experience, such as writing and reflecting on one’s reading, compiling annotated notes, meeting with others reading the same material to discuss, etc. It’s much more than a hobby, though it isn’t quite a paid career! And while it has rewarding moments, it isn’t exactly “fun.” It lacks spontaneity and the thrill of the unplanned discovery.

Three years ago I traveled to South America with the Wolf and a friend. Though we were on a nearly 3 week journey, far from home, I took only two books with me– a non-fiction work about a traveler who tries to rediscover Hiram Bingham’s journey to Machu Picchu, which was part of our itinerary, and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I read the Machu Picchu book as a “serious” reader, as some background for the trip we were undertaking. I read the Tuchman book as someone who loves reading.

Since I read Tuchman’s book, I’ve come to understand that there are some academic criticisms of her telling of history in the story. I don’t think it’s so bad that the book is viewed as a complete fabrication of history, but there are people who argue she emphasized the wrong things, or interpreted events in a novel way that isn’t as rigorous as it could be. And I’ve got to say– I don’t give a damn. It was a marvelous book to read. I don’t know why I decided to finally read it, or why I picked that book of all books to accompany me on my long trip, and I don’t know what I expected to get out of it, but it was amazing. We had a hell of a time on our trip and I can honestly say that laying in bed at some of our hostels and inns, reading another chapter from Guns, were part of those happy memories. It reminded me of just how enjoyable reading can be.

As I mentioned, that was three years ago. Sadly, I haven’t had a similar reading experience since then. It has been almost all “serious” reading and if anything it’s gotten worse over the last few years because I made a resolution a couple years ago to double down on my reading discipline and treat it even more mechanically than I had been. Where did that take me?

It took me to a pretty scary place, reading-wise, where my edifying and sometimes enjoyable hobby became a master with a strange power over me. I realized a few days ago when I had hit the wall when I noticed that I was tracking my “currently reading” list on GoodReads.com, which numbered over twenty titles (!?), and I was spending a lot more time worrying about “getting through it all” than I was actually spending reading the damn books! It was beginning to dominate my thoughts– at work, at home, in play, walking the dog… this nagging anxiety that I had so much to read and it was so exhausting and so unrewarding to feel I was forcing myself to do it just followed me everywhere I went.

After chatting with a friend about some fun-sounding titles, I decided to take action. I logged into GoodReads and wiped my reading list. Completely. Just gone, no glaring record of what I might achieve but have not yet achieved in the world of reading. I grabbed the titles I was physically in the middle of that were laying about the house to remind me to keep working on them, and shelved them. I decided if they’re really interesting and worth my time, I will know where to find them– the idea that I’d lose track of a book I really wanted to read without the “help” of a cloud-based book list seemed truly silly. I shook out the contents of my head a little bit and gave myself permission to not be interested in the stuff I was trying to read right now (which I truly wasn’t, at least not RIGHT NOW) and simultaneously gave myself permission to buy and read the first “fun” book I could think of reading. I chose The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and for the first time in a long time, I used the 2day shipping feature on Amazon to ensure it’d arrive today so I could start reading it. A blaring alarm I was not listening to in this story is the fact that I was in the habit of ordering multiple books at a time and selecting the “Super Saver” shipping option, reasoning that I’d prefer a $1 e-credit because I “didn’t care when my books arrived.” I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something (“bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”… the ancient demonstration of time preference) I don’t know what would.

Now my mind is a bit more free. And I am looking forward to reading this goofy book this evening after it arrives. And I know that if I don’t want to keep turning the page, I can shelve it and pick up something else, order something else or even do something else entirely. There’s a time and a place for being a serious reader, but that time and place shouldn’t be found in my recreational reading regimen. I’m looking forward to loving reading again!

Review – Family Fortunes (#wealth, #family, #investing, #business)

Review – Family Fortunes (#wealth, #family, #investing, #business)

Family Fortunes: How to Build Family Wealth and Hold on to It for 100 Years

by Bill Bonner, Will Bonner, published 2012

What kind of habits and modes of thought separate Old Money families from everyone else? How do you build a family fortune? How do you get a family to work together toward a single purpose as the “core” is continually invaded by new spouses and children? How do you invest your prodigious wealth at high rates of return? How do you hold on to your family fortune for 100 years? Why does 100 years seem like a long time when it’s really only 3-4 generations of people?

Frustratingly (maddeningly?), the answer most often given in this book to questions like these is, “We don’t know, but here’s our guess.”

What I didn’t get from this book, then, were many specific, useful ideas for implementing with my own family enterprise– or family-as-enterprise. What I did get, and what will be the focus of this review, are a lot of questions, principles to ponder, and general strategic problems in need of robust solutions. This is not a how-to manual for putting together the essential structure of long-lived family institutions such as tax and estate planning, family organization and branding, household management.

Most people will not have a family fortune to contend with. It is not something that can be acquired through a known formula, but rather it is the outcome of an entrepreneurial process that is, epistemologically speaking, random. Just as one can not predictably create a family fortune, one can not predictably control the size or scope of the family fortune, within certain bounds. In other words, your family may have the good fortune to stumble upon a business opportunity with a significant market capitalization. That’s the first hurdle, and there’s no formula for getting there. Then, that fortune might turn out to be worth $50M, $100M, or $5B. That’s another hurdle, and there’s no formula. Failing to seize every opportunity you are presented with might limit your total fortune, and being eager and observant for those opportunities might extend the limit. But there is no recipe for turning something that is worth $50M into $5B unless it was the kind of opportunity that can scale that big in the first place.

Some market opportunities are worth a lot to one person who owns them (“he made a fortune!”), but they’re still not worth a lot to the market or economy as a whole (limited scale). This is an important point because of the gilded cage nature of family fortunes– once you have one, you’re kind of stuck with it, but it’s really tempting to think you have a lot more control over it than you do, or that it’s a lot more durable than it might be.

Imagine you’re the guy with the $50M fortune. You’re pretty happy with your luck, assuming everything else is right in your life, but you’re aware of people with $5B fortunes. If you can generate a $50M fortune, why can’t you generate a $5B fortune? Are those people smarter? Better connected? More productive? What’s the difference?

Luck, and leverage, but using leverage without blowing up is really just a residue of luck.

So you’ve got this $50M fortune. What can you do with it? If you have it invested in the business that created it, you enjoy a nice income stream from it each year (maybe that’s worth $2.5M, maybe it’s worth $5M if you’re really lucky) and you reinvest where and when you can. If your business doesn’t scale easily though, you can’t put it back in and make more. You’re stuck at $50M. What if you take the $50M out by selling the business? Now you have $50M in cash with no annual return and an investment problem. Where are you going to put $50M to work such that you can, say, spend $5M per year and still have $50M left over to do it again next year? Know any hot stocks? You didn’t make your fortune in investing the first time around, what makes you think you’re going to make it there the second time around just because you have $50M now? (Note: you are statistically and logically unlikely to achieve this outcome if you so desire it.) Know any good businesses for sale? Oh, that’s right, you just sold one!

That’s the gilded cage. You’re stuck with a $50M fortune. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And nothing changes at scale besides the difficulty of the problem. It isn’t easier but actually harder to achieve yield at higher increments of invested capital due to the economic phenomenon of diminishing marginal returns (if this were not the case, you could infinitely scale things by always adding more resources to every project; DMR ensures that the more you add over time, the less incremental gain you get to the point that you get no return or a negative return, ie, waste). If you had $5B, you’d have even fewer places to put it and you’d have given up an even rarer business opportunity in selling.

Unless your business value is about to become permanently impaired and you can see the writing on the wall when no one else can — technological change, regulatory change, some kind of disastrous political or economic event — your business will never be as valuable to you on the market as it is under your ownership, assuming you’re a competent operator. I’m not going to explore what you do if you’re incompetent because that’s a special case, although it follows the same general logic and leads to the same general investment problems.

I think what this means is that the primary challenge for a family with a fortune in terms of managing their business is to be sensitive to the innovation required over time to maintain the economic value of the assets, to manage the capital structure of their business intelligently (ie, not too much debt) so they don’t lose control because of the volatility of the business cycle, and to build cash up and keep their eyes peeled for a truly unique investment opportunity, the kind that made the first family fortune possible. That means it’s more important to avoid doing the wrong things than it is to try to be finding the right things to do. It also means it requires great patience. If we’re talking about building multi-generational wealth, patience is implied in the premise, but it’s still worth repeating. Bonner emphasizes this frequently– find ways to let time work for you, not against you. He believes luck, advantages and businesses all tend to grow over time so the idea is to set things up so those advantages will accumulate in your favor.

Smart investing is not the way to build a fortune. Some people will build a fortune building an investment business (ie, a wealth manager), but it will not be the investing itself that makes them rich but the operational leverage they gain through their fee structure. Because Bonner is a skeptic of “investing” as a tool for wealth building, he would land squarely on my side of the skeptic’s divide about the value public capital markets play in economic growth. Why should a person find it necessary or valuable to contribute capital to a company building things in other people’s towns instead of investing in opportunities in their own town, right “down the street”? Profit signals and differing equity returns will attract capital from disparate areas and thereby indicate relative value across an economy, but I am skeptical that this process and the capital markets in general would be as big a part of the economy overall as they are presently if we were in anything more closely approximating free market conditions without crony capitalist interventions.

So, you may get lucky and find yourself with a fortune, small or large, from a family business. If you do, hold on to it, appreciate it, care for it, tend to it responsibly and hope you or one of your descendants has an opportunity to take another swing at an uncertain point in the future. But don’t try to force it, and don’t think there’s anything you can do to greatly enhance your opportunity beyond what it is. And understand that it will never be as valuable to you as a pile of cash as it is invested in your business.

The other big topic in the book is building the institutional framework of a long-lived family that can participate in this family business over the generations and can also be “true” to the family culture and values. Family planning is an idea that attracts me, and I have spent considerable time on my own with the concept of creating a family brand (what the ancients’ termed a coat of arms) to identify the family and its enterprises.

The trouble I have with family planning is the same trouble I have with all planning, particularly that of the central variety– what if the individual members of your family don’t really find value in your plan? Obviously, raising them with certain values and viewpoints creates a better chance for a kind of coalescing around this identity and direction. But is that how I want to raise my children, by telling them what is important? I think they can figure that kind of stuff out on their own, just as I did. Hopefully I can lead by example, and provide a demonstration of the virtue of the family virtue. But I think a potentially frustrating consequence of putting this emphasis on building multi-generational institutions together is you might find out your family just doesn’t see the use in them. That’s kind of worse case, though, and doesn’t necessarily argue against the project in general.

Yet, what if you’re successful at this? Building a business and building wealth is a coordination problem resolved by growing trust. Who can you trust more than members of your own family? Creating a family organization based on shared values and common identity and linking that organization to a business entity could allow for a uniquely successful competitive strategy and management continuity over a significantly longer timeline than the average public or private competitor– in other words, huge competitive advantages over time. Simultaneously, this arrangement could solve one of the common problems of families and their constituent members, that being how each as an individual and the family as a whole can achieve security, success and satisfaction with one’s productive efforts and life. As I’ve argued in the past, I believe the family is the best institution for accomplishing this task and it is certainly far superior to the currently dominant model of public corporations (for-profit and nation-states/institutional gangsterism).

3/5

My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.

Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.

The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?

Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.

The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting longhulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.

We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.

When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.

After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.

Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.

Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.

As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-mallarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.

I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.

As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.

Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.

The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.

On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.

We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.

The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!

Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.

And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.

All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.

The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).

On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.

I was really happy we only decided to spend a day there!